By Megan E. Davis
For most kids, playing sports, sleepovers with friends, and going to prom are normal parts of growing up.
But for thousands of foster children in Florida, these activities that most kids take for granted are often out of reach.
“When a normal parent thinks of a kid spending the night at a friend’s house, they think, ‘Oh, OK, I know this person’s parents. It’s fine,’” said Ebonie Thrower, a former foster child in Naples. “What I think of is going back and forth to court and getting fingerprints. It’s taxing and embarrassing.”
A new law approved by Gov. Rick Scott aims to change those circumstances by easing restrictions to afford foster children an opportunity for a more “normal” childhood.
The Quality Parenting for Children in Foster Care Act, championed by the Florida Guardian Ad Litem Program and sponsored by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, and Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Bartow, garnered support from a wide swath, including lawmakers and child advocates.
Former and present foster children called it the “Let Kids Be Kids Bill” while foster parents touted it as the “Permission to Parent Bill.”
“The foster care system in Florida has historically focused on safety and concerns about liability,” Detert said. “Typical rites of passage are anything but typical for children in foster care. Each one requires additional layers of bureaucracy. By taking up their time and having them go through bureaucratic gobbledygook, we’ve bubble-wrapped the kids and deprived them of normalcy.”
When it takes effect July 1, the law will empower foster parents to decide whether to allow children in their care to participate in activities based on the caregiver’s own assessment using a “reasonable and prudent parent standard,” without seeking approval from the child’s caseworker or the courts.
The law states that children are entitled to participate in age-appropriate extracurricular, enrichment, and social activities and that doing so aids their emotional and developmental growth.
Foster parents are required to consider a child’s age and developmental level, potential risk factors, the importance of providing a family-like experience, and the child’s history when deciding which activities are appropriate.
“It’s great because it’s putting into law what our values are for children who happen to be in foster care,” said Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the Florida Guardian Ad Litem Program.
Still, the work toward normalcy isn’t over, he said.
“Now comes the part when we have to ensure that it occurs because there may be other obstacles independent of the caregiver being able to make the decisions of a reasonable, prudent parent,” Abramowitz said. Those could include issues such as agency procedures or insurance concerns, he said.
“What we’re doing as the Guardian Ad Litem Program is coming up with a standard so we can have our volunteers looking at this issue,” Abramowitz said. “If we see that a caregiver is being vetoed for regular activities, we know that there’s a problem. If there are policies contrary to the law, we can do something about it.”